Monday, June 4, 2012

The Films of Warren Beatty: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, starring Warren Beatty and Vivien Leigh, written by Tennessee Williams (1961)

Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, 1961.

Beatty, Leigh, and Joan Collins play cards on the set.
After making his movie debut in Splendor in the Grass, (1961), Warren Beatty’s second movie was The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which was also released in 1961. But where Splendor had been a triumph, Roman Spring was a flop. Like Splendor, which was written by William Inge, Roman Spring also had an impressive writing pedigree, as it was based on a novel by Tennessee Williams. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone was the only movie directed by Jose Quintero, who was most famous as a stage director. Quintero had a lot of success directing the plays of Eugene O’Neill. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone also starred the great actress Vivien Leigh as Mrs. Stone. Leigh was only in her late 40’s when the movie was made, but she was unfortunately very near to the end of her career and life. In the 1950’s she was still starring in many stage productions-mainly opposite her then-husband, Laurence Olivier, but she had not made a film since 1955’s The Deep Blue Sea. Leigh had won two Best Actress Oscars for her iconic roles in Gone With the Wind, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Leigh and Olivier divorced in 1960, just before Leigh filmed Roman Spring. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone would be the second to last movie she appeared in. Her last role was in Ship of Fools in 1965, and she died of tuberculosis in 1967 at the age of 53. 

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone tells the story of an aging actress, Karen Stone, played by Leigh, who is about to take a trip to Rome with her husband. He suffers a heart attack on the plane and dies. She goes on to Rome, rents an apartment, and meets a young Italian gigolo named Paolo, played by Beatty. Although Beatty has the right physical attributes of an attractive young man on the make, he is severely miscast as an Italian. Beatty is not a character actor, and his accent wavers. Defending the casting, screenwriter Gavin Lambert said, “We did look at a couple of Italian actors, but they didn’t have that sort of charisma and sexual dynamism that Warren had.” (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, p. 43.) Well, if they were looking for charisma and sexual dynamism, Warren Beatty certainly had both. Believability as an Italian? Not so much. So Mrs. Stone and Paolo have an affair, and she falls in love with him. But Paolo only loves himself, and his attention soon turns towards a young starlet, played by Jill St. John. A theme throughout the movie is the mysterious young man who stands on the street outside Mrs. Stone’s apartment and stares up at her. Who is he? What does he want? Paolo has a speech at some point in the movie where he talks to Mrs. Stone about a young man coming up to her apartment, making love to her, and then killing her. (Oddly enough, Beatty has an identical speech about going to a woman’s apartment, making love to her, and then killing her in his next movie, All Fall Down.) Paolo leaves Mrs. Stone, and at the end of the movie we see her throw her apartment keys to the mysterious young man in the street. He enters her apartment and we fade out, and presumably he makes love to her and then kills her. Wait, what? Why does Mrs. Stone effectively commit suicide? I have no idea. Part of the ridiculousness of the movie now, 50 years later, is that Mrs. Stone isn’t that old. Sure, maybe in the early 1960’s she seemed old, but now? She’s nearing 50, and in today’s culture that’s not old. People nearing 50 still have a ton of life left in them. So the idea that she’s just embracing death and waiting to die seems rather silly. 

Personally, I think The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a very unsuccessful movie. I just wasn’t invested in these characters at all. Paolo is a jerk, and very unsympathetic. And I didn’t really care what happened to Mrs. Stone, either. Although I certainly didn’t want her to be killed by the creepy stalker guy. Ugh, such a depressing and senseless ending. There’s not much dramatic tension in the story, there’s nothing moving it forward or giving the story any sense of urgency. Will Mrs. Stone keep sleeping with the jerky gigolo with the wavering accent? I don’t really care!

Leigh gives a good performance, and she does the most she can with the material. Beatty is miscast, and the whole Italian accent just had him hamstrung from the very beginning. Also weighing against Beatty is the fact that Paolo is a totally unsympathetic character. There’s no reason for the audience to like him. Beatty is also at his best when there’s some comedy in a script, and there’s no comedy in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.

Beatty actively campaigned for the role of Paolo, perhaps in an attempt to play a very different kind of character from Bud Stamper, the role he played in Splendor in the Grass. Beatty even went so far as to fly to Puerto Rico to convince Tennessee Williams to cast him. Beatty says, “I thought, An Italian, he should be darker than I was, so I got something called Man-Tan. You put it on your face and you turned a sort of an orange-yellow. I found an Italian with an accent. I worked with him for two days. I got what I considered to be an Italian suit. I put on the suit. I put on the Man-Tan. I put on the accent, and I flew to San Juan.” Beatty then found Williams gambling in the hotel. Williams was recovering from ulcers, and Beatty told a waiter to bring Williams a glass of milk. As Beatty says, “In those days, they treated ulcers with milk. My father had ulcers, and he drank milk all the time, which, by the way, is the worst thing you can do. Milk is very irritating to the mucus membrane of the stomach.” (Biskind, p. 43.) Williams told Beatty that he had the part. It’s rather funny to imagine Beatty, with his fake tan and phony accent, trying to convince Williams to cast him. I’m sure that Beatty’s good looks and charm helped him immensely.

At the time Roman Spring was filmed, Beatty was engaged to the British starlet Joan Collins, but their relationship was nearing its end. Vivien Leigh apparently didn’t care for Collins appearing on the set, as Leigh had a crush on Beatty. The card game pictured above with Beatty, Leigh, and Collins must have been a tense one! Did Beatty and Leigh have an affair? There are rumors they did, but there’s not much evidence beyond hearsay to support it. Beatty himself had only kind things to say about Leigh: “Well that was a childhood crush and it never became any other way…she was a lovely person, a terrific lady, made me feel immensely important, and she was beautiful to look at.” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p. 253.) As a young man, Beatty really went out of his way to cultivate friendships with older people-like director Elia Kazan, playwright William Inge, and author Clifford Odets. While one could be cynical and say that Beatty was merely making these connections in order to further his own career, it seems clear to me that he looked up to these men as role models. Sure, they might have helped him get work, but he was also looking to them for advice about life. Making the movie The Only Game in Town just so he could work with the great director George Stevens is an example of this. Stevens was past his prime, and The Only Game in Town was neither a great script nor a good movie, so it really took something on Beatty’s part to accept the role just to learn from Stevens. Beatty was obviously at ease around older people, even as a young man. But his respect for his elders and his affection for Vivien Leigh didn’t stop him from being constantly late to the set. Director Jose Quintero said, “Out of what I can only imagine to be insecurity, he was arrogant and huffy to Vivien. He kept people waiting.” (Finstad, p. 253.) Ah, the contradiction that is Warren Beatty! I would guess that Quintero hit the nail on the head; Beatty probably was insecure, especially sharing most of his scenes with a legend like Vivien Leigh. Again, as I said in my post about All Fall Down, this isn’t meant to excuse Beatty’s behavior, but just to try and understand it. He may have felt insecure opposite Vivien Leigh, as she was a veteran actress who had been married to Laurence Olivier, considered the greatest actor of the 20th century, and here’s Beatty, touted as the “next big thing,” and he’s only made one movie which hasn’t even been released yet. Leigh probably had no idea who he was when he was cast in the role, and she probably hadn’t seen any footage from Splendor in the Grass, so she had no idea how good of an actor Beatty was. Also, Beatty probably knew he was in over his head, playing a part with an accent he couldn’t master, with a not-so-great script. 

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone was released in late December, 1961, just two months after Splendor in the Grass came out. Anyone who saw Splendor and who was hoping to see more of the magnetic young actor who seemed like the next James Dean must have been disappointed if they saw Roman Spring.

Two incidental notes that I found interesting about Beatty at this time: In my last post about McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I joked that it was a good thing that Beatty never worked with Stanley Kubrick, another perfectionist famed for shooting numerous takes. Well, I read that while shooting Roman Spring in England, Beatty hung out a lot with Kubrick, who was shooting Lolita at the same studio. Later, in 1963, when Beatty was trying to make What’s New, Pussycat? he tried to persuade Kubrick to direct it. But that project fell apart for Beatty, and he ended up not being cast in the movie. 

Shortly after filming Roman Spring, Beatty spent an evening with the Italian director Luchino Visconti, who apparently wanted Beatty to play a part in his movie The Leopard, starring Burt Lancaster. The part that Visconti wanted Beatty for was eventually played by Alain Delon, which makes perfect sense, since Delon is basically the French Warren Beatty.


Maria said...

Warren Beatty is much overrated in looks and talent.Delon is a GORGEOUS legend.America has not produced an actor to equal him.He even surpasses Brando,Newman & Redford!!! The male Liz Taylor!!!

Mark said...

I haven't seen Delon in very many movies, so I can't say much about his talent. He's excellent in Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samourai," from 1967. By comparing Delon and Beatty I meant that in the early 1960's they were both young up and coming "pretty boy" actors.